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Poster: Mr. Date: Feb 4, 2006 10:52pm
Forum: movies Subject: Calvin and the "Calvin Workshop"

Now here's another thing we could discuss---the films of the Calvin Company. Yes, whether this company from Kansas City was making didactic industrial films ("The Magic Bond," "Food for America," "Wood for War"), or educational employee training films ("Coffee Break," "The Bright Young Newcomer," "Murder on the Screen"), or of course they were putting together intentionally amusing satires of the nontheatrical film industry ("Your Name Here," "Overs and Outs," and that monkey film whose gibberish title I can't remember), Calvin has been featured on this Archive prominently and has been the subject of controversy---were they just a bunch of crazy kooks or a "giant blooper," or were they an actual industrial film company?---and questions like, "What was these guys' deal? What's up with those crazy workshop films?" I will try to answer some of those questions and then let's have discussion.

The Calvin Company was actually the largest industrial film production company and 16mm lab in the world during the 1940s and '50s. For nearly half a century it dominated the field in terms of quantity as well as quality. Calvin handled many accounts of the Fortune 500---such companies as Du Pont, Goodyear, Caterpillar, and General Mills. It pioneered the use of 16mm sound technology, of new Kodak processing methods, and of 8mm film. It won more than its share of accolades at trade festivals. It held nationwide sales and training seminars that attracted a who's who of business.Whatever paid, it made--government films, commercials, educationals, industrials, documentaries, and every variety of short subject.

It all began with one man---Forrest O. Calvin. Calvin and his wife, Betty, had the idea of 16mm film as an ideal format for business and sales films (they weren't called "industrials" at that point) and they founded the Calvin Company in Kansas City in 1931 based around this idea. The principal reason for locating a film production company in Kansas City, of all places, was, other than the fact that the Calvins lived there, that the city had industry, locations, and commerce, and its central location was ideal for distribution purposes. Calvin divided most of his time in the early days between convincing the industrial clients that 16mm films would be good for their business, and then actually producing the films. Soon, local and area clients such as Kansas Flour Mills and the Topeka Security Benefit Association began ordering more films, and Calvin's old college buddies Lloyd Thompson and Larry Sherwood joined the company, and the Calvin Co. was on its way.

The next step was for the company to achieve a national reputation so they could attract more clients. As the company's staff grew from four to twenty-five persons, this was achieved in 1938 when Calvin produced the first-ever industrial film in full sound and full color. The film won more than its share of awards and Calvin instantly received national recognition for their pioneering move. By 1940, Calvin had a rather fancy list of clients: Du Pont, Caterpillar Tractor, Goodyear, General Mills, Celotex, Bemis Bag, International Harvester, Monsanto, Phillips 66, Massey-Harris, Warner-Patterson, Beatrice Foods and Meadow Gold Products, and the State of Missouri, plus many others too numerous to mention. Many of these accounts stayed with the Calvins for decades.

More recognition came for Calvin as they began manufacturing the 16mm Movie-Mite projectors, designed for the salesman. These were the first-ever desk-sized projectors and after winning an award for plastics Calvin's reputation as a pioneering and creative force within the nontheatrical film industry was heightened.

However, the real success came with World War II, which was a gold mine for the Calvin Company. Calvin immediately signed up to do a series of training films for the U.S. Navy, such as informational ones about boiler-room operations on battleships, maintenance of engines, or the handling of PT boats. This proved extremely lucrative for the company as it built up contacts, prestige, and goodwill for business after the armistice. F.O. Calvin was also a $1-a-year man for the Navy in Washington, D.C., where he advised on the running of a filmmaking system very similar to the Calvins'. The Navy wanted Calvin to move his operations to D.C., but F.O. persisted, and the Calvin personnel remained in Kansas City.

After World War II, Calvin had made a couple of significant developments. First of all, their regular staff had grown from 60 persons to over 200. Also, back in 1943, the Calvin Company moved into a new building, built by Robert Altman's grandfather at Truman and Troost in Kansas City. The seven-story building held a magnificent sound stage, 80 by 120 feet with a 30-foot ceiling, converted from a former movie theater, on the first floor. The second floor held offices for directors and writers, plus a recording studio. The third and fourth were given over to the craft departments---the laboratory, processing, which accounted for at least half the Calvins' income, and printing. The fifth floor held the executive offices. Sixth floor was animation. Seventh floor was the Movie-Mite Corp.

By the 1950s, the Calvin firm was a fixture in Kansas City and known as a brand name of merit across the country. And the business of making films for businesses was booming. "Calvin turns out 18 million feet of film a year, or enough to make one 16-millimeter strip stretching from Key West to Seattle and part way back," reported one contemporary local newspaper. In 1951, Calvin became the first firm licensed by Kodak to process Kodak's color film. The Calvin Company was also an important venue for the Kansas City arts. All the local actors from community theater and local radio and TV appeared in the Calvin films again and again. Some of these actors, like Art Ellison, James Lantz, Leonard Belove, Kermit Echols, Owen Bush, and Al Christy, also occasionally appeared in feature films that were being made in the KC area (like "The Delinquents," "The Cool and the Crazy," "Carnival of Souls," "In Cold Blood," "Paper Moon," "Shoot It Black, Shoot It Blue," "The Day After," etc.), or even moved on to Hollywood. As a note, former local bigwigs like Walter Cronkite and Harry Truman appeared in Calvin films as well as occasional appearances by Hollywood stars such as William Frawley and John Carradine.

Calvin was also "home" to every film student and filmmaker in the Kansas City area, and many of them, including directors Richard Sarafian and Reza Badiyi, editor Louis Lombardo, radio broadcaster turned actor Dick Peabody, and art director Chet Allen, later went on to Hollywood to find fame in feature films or TV---which most of them did. Oh, am I forgetting someone? Yes. The feature film director Robert Altman ("M*A*S*H," "Nashville," "The Player") who is now getting his honorary Oscar, was born and raised in Kansas City and in the early 1950s got his first filmmaking training and experience at the Calvin Co. before leaving for California in 1956. One of Altman's Calvin industrials, "The Magic Bond," is available here on the Archive. Altman has said that Calvin was a good place to learn, because "you were always having to make an interesting film out of a subject that was intrinsically boring---such as a caterpillar tractor." In any case, after six years of industrial filmmaking at Calvin, he had learned everything a guy like him could hope to learn: cutting and splicing, operating the camera, writing or improvising, coaxing the performers, directing and producing; and he had raised eyebrows and won instructional category awards for some of his Calvin shorts. He was ready to move on. He secured financing ($63,000) from local backers, hired a bunch of crew people and performers from the Calvin Company as well as Tom Laughlin, the future "Billy Jack," and shot his first feature film, "The Delinquents," on-location in Kansas City in two weeks in 1956, just weeks before leaving for Hollywood for good. The film was picked up for distribution by United Artists and grossed $1,000,000 in 1957, placing Altman's foot firmly in Hollywood's door.

And, finally, we come to the "Calvin Workshop." What was this, you ask? Why did they make such kooky films, you ask? Well, the answer is rather simple. Ever since 1947, the Calvin Company had sponsored an annual get-together of industrial film producers and technicians in Kansas City called the "Calvin Workshop," where they could educate, improve, and orient their filmmaking. Every year, more than 450 people from the nontheatrical film industry all over the world showed up. It was a big deal. Now, these filmmakers needed some entertainment that might poke fun at or spoof the industry they were all in, so each year some Calvin people would make stuff like "Your Name Here" or "The Vicious Circle" or sometimes more educational stuff like "How Much?" ahead of time for the attendees of these Calvin Workshops. That's the answer right there.

This was all too good to last, and it didn't. The Calvin organization came under new management in the mid-1960s, and business began to decline thereafter. By the late '60s, the production staff had been cut drastically. Studios in Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Detroit were sold. Longtime accounts drifted away. Finally, there was only the Calvin operations in Kansas City, where it had all begun, and in the 1980s the company formally dissolved. The seven-story building built by Robert Altman's grandfather stood empty and shimmering. There were newspapers and empty paper cups next to the editing machines, as if people had gotten up and left for a cigarette break. In 1991, the old Calvin building was razed to make way for some virtual school. A piece of Kansas City film history was falling to the wrecking ball.

I really wish Rick Prelinger would include more Calvin films on the Archive. I'd especially love to see more Calvin films directed by Robert Altman.


Reply [edit]

Poster: Hedden Date: Jun 22, 2010 6:56pm
Forum: movies Subject: Re: Calvin and the 'Calvin Workshop'

I am the daughter of one of the "bosses" of the Calvin Company(or Calvin Productions), William Hedden. He was more concerned about the lab side of the business, he worked on the different types of films for Kodak, and often tested new film for the company. I remember many of the company picnics, Mr and Mrs. Calvin, and Mr. Keck. My father passed away in November of 1982, which was about the time the company closed. My father and Forest Calvin met during the war in Washington,D.C. He spent time in the Navy, and when the war was over Mr. Calvin asked him to come and work in the labs in Kansas City, instead of returning to Kodak, in New York.

Calvin, during the 1960's did film work for Nasa, and worked on the prints of the NFL film prints of the Super bowl films. The company would do news film before the TV stations went into video tape. The lab also did prints of the Woody Woodpecker cartoons, and other indpendent movies.

My father loved his work, and enjoyed working for Calvin. He and Mr. Keck bought the company from the 4 families that started it. In the end, it was the fact that they could not agree about going into video tape, along with other types of entertainment, that caused my father to be bought out by Mr. Keck. My father saw the future in video tapes, and lazer discs back in the beginning of the 1980's, and wanted to expand in that direction, while others wanted to keep things the way they were. (or so he would tell us before his death)

thank you for the interesting article about the Calvin Company. I also would like to close with one of my favorite memories, Traveling in the "Calvin Car", or the company Station wagon with the Big "C" on the side of it. It always seemed to bring notice to the family when we would go to Michigan on vaction, or out west. Sometimes on our vacations Dad would take out a company movie camera and take "travelouges" of where we would go, testing another film, or something like that. I am sure there are pictures of us somewhere in the some forgotten reel of film where he "used" us as props in those films.

Calvin was an interesting part of our lives for many years, thank you for the memories.

Elizabeth Hedden Abrams

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Poster: MAGGIE SHAFFER-NICHOLS-NYGREN Date: Feb 23, 2011 7:44pm
Forum: movies Subject: Re: Calvin and the 'Calvin Workshop'

I remember your father well, was there the day he walked in and was told your mom had been taken to the hospital, etc. and, the dreadful aftermath. your memory and his were/are correct. He saw the future and could not talk powers to be into the investment. To quote your father directly, "would you put your money into this place". Your father was much loved, much respected, incredibly far sighted by all of us who worked with him. Somewhere i have a book of clippings that Katy Bennett put together and end up in my hands because i don't move often and tend to hold on things ...

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Poster: GGWOODY Date: May 5, 2019 6:58pm
Forum: movies Subject: Re: Calvin and the 'Calvin Workshop'

Hi, My Mother is looking for someone she worked with at Calvin Productions,around late 60's and 70's when it was Calvin Productions. His Name was Everett White . She jas returned to KansasCity recently and hopes to find him.
Thank You! GG

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Poster: Hedden Date: Feb 23, 2011 8:31pm
Forum: movies Subject: Re: Calvin and the 'Calvin Workshop'

Thank you so much for your kind words. Dad saw many things that have happened. Thank you again for your kind words.

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Poster: laurabishopsmith Date: Mar 1, 2011 12:32am
Forum: movies Subject: Re: Calvin and the 'Calvin Workshop'

I used to work at Calvin right at the end of production there watching the films at high speeds as they were produced--around 1981. I loved taking breaks and going up to watch the animators work. I can recognize the ways they made signage in some of the films catalogued on this site.

It was tough in the last few months--they had to let a couple of managers go--one guy in particular was pretty nice but had an office that was absolutely stuffed with pigs. Then there was the transition to 4 day work weeks--really hard on the last few workers in the vestiges of the once-grand film studio.

I wonder if you all remember these things. So great to see postings so recent about this place.

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Poster: MAGGIE SHAFFER-NICHOLS-NYGREN Date: Mar 1, 2011 8:54am
Forum: movies Subject: Re: Calvin and the 'Calvin Workshop'

Pigs? Gosh that sounds familiar, but I can't remember. Did you come to the last big reunion -lab, production, and services in 2000. Lately, so many of our friends have passed that I am not sure we can emotionally do a third. Do you know Marie (Puchino?) Lowen? Anyway, most everyone who left during that time from production thrived afterwords. Ironically, most all the production staff were masters of their craft. So finding work in the real world was not difficult. It was just for so many of us - calvin was home and our coworkers were and are family. The closure was inevitable due to the changes in the industry and the decisions made to not adjust. Did you know kodak has shut down the last still lab processing Kodacrome? The NEW term for the editing I did is linear editing, with computers and new programs you can edit a film from home. I am a little envious, never having to look for a 3 frame tail end of workprint. making virtual cuts, able to preview, able to find tune the cuts. Not to mention, not having to wind 1600 feet of workprints and sound tracks manually. Video camera assists for shoots. This new world has lost somethings, but I do appreciate their gains. Of course, none of dreamed the goverment would literally chain the doors shut. It all ended so tragically.

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Poster: laurabishopsmith Date: Mar 1, 2011 8:53pm
Forum: movies Subject: Re: Calvin and the 'Calvin Workshop'

It was so long ago that my memories have really faded regarding names--I spent my time watching 16 frames a second post production for minimum wage, but its so good to hear that people made the transition well as Calvin closed down. I learned to edit there and remember the women sitting outside the room I was in who were doing that work...

I edited at the KC cable access studios on analog video starting in '86, and later, in '95--I'm south of Reno now--I learned digital editing. And you're absolutely right, its much time to make a cut, and never starting over :)

yours truly, --laura

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Poster: gk16blman Date: May 12, 2011 12:22pm
Forum: movies Subject: Re: Calvin and 'Calvin Workshop' Photos

My father attended several of the Calvin workshops over the years. (I still have notebooks and papers from his excursions to Kansas City) When I got older, I visited the company once and always wished I was the right age to work down there. Unfortunately, the 16mm business was in decline and that was not to be. However I do remember visiting the old cafe/diner in the building on the corner -which at the time I visited, was turned into an equipment rental/purchase area. Even at that time, one of my early college films was done with the help of an employee of Calvin who took the time to hand type a letter on 16mm procedures and to walk me through the lab process. Truly an amazing gentlemen for taking the time and interest in a young kid just starting out!

I kept my interest - and now work in coporate video today. I am curious - does anyone have an archieve of photos of the production facility or productions being worked on? I've found very limited images on the internet and would love to see some of the exciting times down there!

Greg Kubitschek
Lincoln, NE

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Poster: Larry Hoffman Date: Jan 28, 2020 5:05am
Forum: movies Subject: Re: Calvin and the 'Calvin Workshop'

I'm retired now but a DVD was circulating around at the water plant where I worked. I don't know it's source but I put it on my youtube channel. It's a Calvin production. It's amazing how the water plant has changed since the film was made, yet there are still some things that haven't changed. Enjoy.
This post was modified by Larry Hoffman on 2020-01-28 13:05:49